The King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies has an amazing program that should be replicated by other institutions. It is called Gateway and it invites students from some of the best universities in the world to visit Saudi Arabia. It’s a program that, in a distinctive and interesting way, tries to shatter countries’ stereotypes of the Kingdom. Participants, like many people visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time, are amazed at how different the reality is from the perception they have been fed throughout their lives.
I was recently asked an interesting question by one of the students. He wanted to know what caused the world to hate Saudi Arabia so much. Although there are many reasons, the one I elaborated on was racism, which is destructive globally.
Racism takes on many forms and has reprehensible consequences. Starting from biological race and developing into exploitation and the more commonly seen human invention of cultural differences, racism goes beyond words or beliefs. It touches attitudes and behavior, is disdainful and disrespectful, affects the dignity and self-esteem of victims and, as such, harms society in general.
It is a vehicle of recognition and admission of differences between peoples, communities, cultures, faiths, traditions and deeds, provoking disruptiveness, divisiveness and dissention, prompting hatred and misunderstanding based on suspicion and doubt. Racism is not only founded on hatred, it is also built on ignorance and fear, usually of minorities who are seen as threats to national identity or social security. Often, national pride is used as a justification for this loathsome behavior and it is interesting to see that certain words and expressions have become interchangeable either to justify a certain stance or to hide deeper nefarious feelings without being outspoken about it.
We have seen countries which once prided themselves on being multicultural and multifaith fight the very richness of their diverse social fibre in the name of nationalism. The melting pot of globalization is rapidly being replaced by inner-looking individualism which can no longer accept the other, the different or the diverse, and which breeds sentiments of prejudice, discrimination and sectarianism.
Today, abusive, violent or intimidating racist behavior has found a new and more powerful platform — social media, where racial harassment marginalizes or excludes individuals. Cyber-racism commits these blatant offenses — which spread like wildfire — under the blanket of anonymity and in the name of freedom of speech. Traditional media, too, is a perpetrator of racism by voicing unfair or negative opinions on racial minorities, or unknown and misunderstood cultures in articles or programs that are capable of reaching millions of readers or viewers. People use this information as a weapon to attack and judge that of which they know nothing about, as is the case for Saudi Arabia.
Racism is learned. A child is not born racist. Racism is wrong. It challenges social equity and value systems. It needs to be fought, if not eradicated, through awareness and education and by denouncing practices that are demeaning and patronizing. Although laws and policies cannot change mindsets, they can nevertheless restrain social conduct and attitudes.
Hoda Al-Helaissi has been a member of the Shoura Council since 2013. She is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee within the Shoura.